New Gay Activists Split With Old Guard on Tactics

Rick Jacobs was a steady fixture at last month's gay-marriage trial, perched in his chair, bolt upright, blogging nonstop into his Macbook Pro. In his pinstripe suit, purple tie, and small rimless glasses, Jacobs looked as lawyerly as the case's lead attorneys, Ted Olson or Charles Cooper. But Jacobs was at the trial as an activist, part of the gay grassroots surge in the wake of 2008's passage of California's Proposition 8. This outpouring of anger has upset the established order of a state-by-state, hearts-and-minds approach that many experienced gay activists swear by, and see dissolving in a new rush to litigate.

For years veteran gay and lesbian organizations have taken a cautious and, some argue, painfully slow surgical approach to lawsuits. But their words of warning were drowned out as Perry v. Schwarzeneggerwent to trial. "This is a movement now, and it's exciting and is literally uncontrollable," says Jacobs. The energy has spread virally, he says, "and if you are used to working on this issue from the top down, it's got to be uncomfortable."

Jacobs's organization, Courage Campaign, started in 2005 to pursue progressive issues in the state, and its Web site says it has 700,000 "grassroots and netroots citizens." It has only 13 full-time employees and no real office; "we're totally virtual," says Jacobs, who doesn't think the difference between older and new groups is about generations. "It's more structural—between a financial system that operates on a higher level and a grassroots movement with a huge amount of new energy." The veteran groups, he says, are frustrating the newly activated masses with their cautious approach. "The worst thing you can do is try to tell people to slow down."

Lt. Dan Choi, who is currently being discharged from the Army for being gay, dissected the disconnect this way: "There is a fear, especially with groups who have been in the movement longer, that this will end in disaster in the Supreme Court. That the more silent, the better we'll be." But he says bold moves, even if not planned, can wind up being beneficial. "I've lost my career, my benefits, but I've done nothing but gain for the movement," says Choi, who hasn't been formally discharged yet. Older LGBT groups, he says, have been slower to embrace new tactics, especially those related to the Web. "We get all their e-mails but sometimes wonder if they are just trying to make payroll." Choi quickly adds that he understands larger organizations do have to worry about staying in business.

"Without groups like Lambda Legal and some of the other older organizations, we'd be nowhere," Jacobs adds. But he thinks the more established groups also had "the disadvantage of perceived success." As Karen Ocamb, news editor for Frontiers in Los Angeles, tells NEWSWEEK, the gay community, for the most part, couldn't imagine they'd lose the Prop 8 fight in liberal California. When they did, "Young LBGT people, in particular, didn't just have their eyes opened to antigay discrimination—they were bug-eyed!" The result? The surge of interest in groups like Courage Campaign (not solely an LGBT organization), which in just over 48 hours culled together more than 138,000 signatories to a petition to call for televising the Prop 8 trial, a petition mentioned by Justice Stephen Breyer.

But that online outpouring didn't sway the rest of the Supreme Court, which ruled in January in favor of Prop 8 defenders who argued against airing Perry proceedings online. You could feel the upset—and again, surprise—in the courtroom, packed primarily with gay-marriage supporters, after the decision came through. Mary Bonauto, a veteran litigator of equality lawsuits for Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD), wasn't in the least surprised at the Supreme Court's stance. While GLAD is urging people to support Perry, she is trying to convince the newly energized and younger movement to not forget "to also take important and bite-size steps" toward changing laws—and hearts and minds. Web activism is vital, and perhaps the greatest comfort zone for younger activists, but good old-fashioned one-on-one conversation is also important, she says. "Personal contact is the major ingredient to opening people's eyes," Bonauto says. "It's talking to that recalcitrant aunt, or the neighbors who knew you as a kid." If younger, newly minted activists may have more tolerant families and neighbors, they should look beyond the comfort of their inner circles. "We have very sharp and passionate opponents," Bonauto warns.

Evan Wolfson, a gay-marriage advocate since the '80s and founder of Freedom to Marry (which has also argued against a rush to lawsuits) , agrees that "making the case of who gay people are, why marriage matters, and why denial hurts people and helps no one" is the key to success. So are focused lawsuits, he says, but only when carefully chosen. He points to one of GLAD's cases, a Massachussetts challenge to the Defense of Marriage Act as an example of a case less ambitious than Perry, but widely considered something of a slam-dunk in the gay legal community. "I'm as eager to win as anyone," says Wolfson, who has argued cases in Hawaii and elsewhere. "But an important element of winning is just that—winning."

Wolfson has just hired young specialists in new media and message delivery, but says Netrooting alone won't lead to success. "Twitter and Facebook and new ways of reaching people, crucial as they are, do not replace other ways. We also still have to win votes and lobby legislators and win court cases." For his part, Courage Campaign's Jacobs recognizes it might be harder for older organizations to tap into the "feedback loop" of the Web that his organization has. But he says he could use some guidance. If the veteran gay-rights and legal groups would "provide their insight on where we are on the legislation, to tell us where to plug in, but not try to own it," everyone can benefit. "If we can connect people with each other, and they can offer structure, I think we're unstoppable."

Join the Discussion